Can Democrats Really Win Paul Ryan’s District?

Randy Bryce joins other residents at a rally to show support for students who finished the last leg of a 50-mile march through Wisconsin in the hometown of House Speaker Paul Ryan to call attention to gun violence on March 28 in Janesville, Wisconsin.
Randy Bryce joins other residents at a rally to show support for students who finished the last leg of a 50-mile march through Wisconsin in the hometown of House Speaker Paul Ryan to call attention to gun violence on March 28 in Janesville, Wisconsin.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

Randy Bryce saw the same reports everyone else did on Wednesday morning: House Speaker Paul Ryan will retire at the end of the year. “The first thought I had was, ‘I have to see him say these words for myself,’ ” Bryce told me by phone, after months of rumors that Ryan wouldn’t run for re-election.

Once Ryan made it official? “It feels like the first day of spring,” said Bryce, the mustachioed steelworker who had previously been waging a long-shot campaign to unseat Ryan this fall. “The birds are singing; the sun is shining.”

Ryan’s announcement will have far-reaching impacts on the midterms. As my colleague Jim Newell points out, it’s going to be difficult to ask Republican donors to keep cutting checks—and to convince other weary Republican lawmakers to stick around—now that the speaker himself has decided to call it quits. But nowhere will it have a more immediate impact than in Ryan’s home district, where Bryce emerged as a progressive darling in large part because he was taking on the sitting speaker.

The Cook Political Report on Wednesday reclassified the race from “Likely Republican” to “Lean Republican,” signaling that Ryan’s exit creates a legitimate opening for Democrats despite the district’s GOP tilt. Wisconsin Republicans redrew the district in 2010 to make life easier for Ryan, who was then the chairman of the House Budget Committee and a rising star in the party, and with Ryan on the presidential ticket in 2012, Romney won the district by 5 points despite losing Wisconsin by 7. Four years later, Trump won the district by 10 points while winning the state by less than a single point. That built-in GOP advantage was on display yet again last week, when a Republican-backed candidate for the state Supreme Court carried Ryan’s district by 5 points despite losing the statewide race by 11.

It’s a comfortable advantage, but Republicans still need to find a suitable replacement for Ryan on the ballot. Their choice today is between Paul Nehlen, an avowed white nationalist who is too far right for even some white nationalists, and Nick Polce, who began the year with about $4,000 in his campaign bank account. (Remarkably, Nehlen would not be the Republicans’ only anti-Semitic nominee.*) But with the filing deadline not until the start of June, Republicans still have time to go shopping, possibly for someone like Robin Vos, the speaker of the Wisconsin state Assembly. Conservatives will then need to decide how much time and money to pour into the race now that they won’t be defending Ryan.

For Bryce, the question will be whether he can remain an avatar of the #Resistance now that he’s not running against the man responsible for much of the GOP’s legislative agenda. Bryce found early success with a viral campaign ad calling out Ryan by name and quickly turned that into frequent appearances on MSNBC. He was one of the first congressional candidates to get a coveted endorsement from Bernie Sanders this year, and he has since paired that progressive badge of honor with the backing of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

On Wednesday, Bryce was quick to claim credit for vanquishing the speaker. “I would credit our campaign a lot. We had quite a bit to do with it,” he told me, pointing out that he spent months challenging Ryan over his legislative agenda and his support of Donald Trump. “[Ryan] was going to have to fight, for a change—something he hasn’t done since the first time he was elected.”

While Bryce raised an impressive $2.1 million in the past three months, Ryan began the year with $9.3 million more in the bank than Bryce and also had the luxury of knowing that if the race did get close, the conservative cavalry of special-interest groups and super PACs wouldn’t be far behind. The two parties disagree on just how tight the race was, but no one disputes Ryan was the clear favorite. According to internal Democratic polling, Bryce trailed Ryan by 6 points in December, and the same survey suggested that the Democrat remained mostly a blank slate to respondents; according to internal GOP polling shared with reporters Wednesday, Ryan had a 21-point lead in March. Ryan, then, was probably less motivated to pack it in by a fear that he’d lose to Bryce than by the reality that he could win in November and still likely lose his speaker’s gavel, given the current political headwinds blowing against his party.

Bryce had framed his race as a head-to-head matchup with Ryan, but in fact, he still has to win the Democratic nomination. His opponent, former teacher and school-board member Cathy Myers, has seized on some of Bryce’s missteps, including a couple tone-deaf tweets that read as sexist. Likewise, his attempt to build a national following—including his purchase of fake Twitter followers before he launched his campaign and his decision to air ads in places like San Francisco and Seattle—have opened him up to attacks from Republicans portraying him as out of touch and inauthentic. And his past personal financial problems, which include late child support payments and a 1999 bankruptcy, are sure to provide attack-ad fodder of their own.

Bryce declined to speculate about whom he might face if he moves on to the general election, but he said his message would be the same as it is now, because any GOP candidate would be “just another version” of the same ones running elsewhere. “We started out in June wanting to repeal and replace Paul Ryan,” Bryce said. “The repeal part is out of the way, but we still have a lot of work to replace him.”

*Correction, April 11, 2018: This piece originally claimed a Bryce–Nehlen general election would have been the second race between a Bernie Sanders–backed Democrat and an avowed anti-Semitic Republican nominee. While a different white nationalist candidate has already secured the GOP nomination in Illinois’ 3rd Congressional District, the Sanders-backed challenger there lost to the Democratic incumbent in March.